Settled amongst the hills of Heathcote, Aussie artist and satirist Peter Russell-Clarke reflects on a life that is as unique and full of interest as his art.

By Sue Turpie – Photography by David Field

When talking with Peter Russell-Clarke it’s hard to believe that his life hasn’t been made into a mini-series. There is as much colour and story in his lifetime as you would find in any one of his paintings. Yet he offers his stories, covering eight decades, without any suggestion or want for sympathy or empathy; he is just telling it like it is. This is what makes him such a likeable person, beyond being one of the country’s most distinctive celebrities. His upbringing would also explain why he is so accepting and respectful of other cultures, and his experience as a political commentator means when he offers an opinion on the state of politics he is drawing on a wealth of observational experience.
Peter lives with his wife, Jan, just outside of Heathcote, hidden away in the undulating landscape scattered with volcanic rock. Admiring the beauty of the area and the home, it is hard to imagine that some years ago, the original house had been destroyed by fire. Peter and Jan had to rebuild their lives from the ground up and the new house is as rich in character as the couple themselves.
There is a mix of art and artefacts throughout. A beautiful dining table that would seat a family of 20-plus, and large windows offerings views of the hillsides and the house’s array of plants potted on the large outdoor area. The garden is thriving much to the delight of the local birdlife. It seems there is a battle of wits between Peter and a couple of cockies eyeing off one of his beloved plants. The couple moved to the area after selling their farm.
“We were raising sheep and cattle,” Peter explains. “We bred them on the Bellarine and then moved them up to a place we had between Portland and Hamilton. Fattened them up there and then put them on the boat to ship them off to the Arabs. We weren’t very successful, so we sold up the farms and moved up here. This place reminds me of where I was brought up, same ground, the rocks, the hills, and good people. I preferred this area as opposed to the Bellarine which was flat and uninteresting.”
With an unending list of cook books to his name, a career in media as an iconic TV personality and a unique artist, it’s warming to hear Peter speak so fondly of the area, and its restaurants.
“Bendigo has the Malayan Orchard for instance, my favourite Asian restaurant. The food is not only elegant and imaginative but it’s considered and well cooked. I had a series of foster parents. At one stage I was brought up by a Chinese family and my mother and father didn’t speak English. They were very traditional Chinese and therefore I have an affinity with Chinese and Asian food and possibly one of my major clients for painting is Malaysian, and they invited me to go over and cook with the Malaysian Professional Chefs Association, which I found not only an honour but it was fascinating.
“I eventually met my biological father when I was in my 20s, he was an Englishman, a defrocked priest from the church of England, and to get his own back on the Anglicans he had me brought up as a Catholic,” Peter laughs. “He put me in a boarding school in New South Wales but he never paid the fees. The nuns, during the depression, were very good to me but had to kick me out. But they put me with a good Catholic family who could only look after me for three months and I moved on.
“It was an interesting and fascinating time, but it also allowed me to experience different food and possibly connected with my artwork. I’ve been a practising artist all my life; food and painting to me use colour, texture, form, shape … they’re basically the same. I used to be the political cartoonist on The Melbourne Herald, and wrote on politics and opinion pieces for The Age, The Daily Mirror and so on, so I found writing painting and cooking similar because you’re expressing something.”
Beyond the Malayan Orchard, Peter has other links to Bendigo. He’s the chairman of Regional Reach Advertising and recently had an exhibition of his work at Fortuna. He did his national service with topographical surveying, of which head printing works were in Fortuna. “We did most of our training down on the coast, but all the brass, the big boys, were at Fortuna. I get to visit it now that I’ve grown up, and with the owner being a mate … different from being a corporal and getting my butt kicked every day, now I’m swanning around the place,” he says with a chuckle.
It all sounds exciting, but Peter also explains the reality that comes with the life of the artists and how, despite having a famous name he still has the same concerns that any family has when it comes to finances. Overflowing creativity is one thing, but work still needs to be exhibited and sold.
“I paint nearly every day, so you end up with a stack of work and stack of bills,” he says. “I’ve never really been employed. Even at the newspapers I was still freelance. And with art, once you’ve had an exhibition in one spot you can’t go back there for another five or so years. In the meantime, I’ve still got to live. It’s a bit of a bugger, so that’s the reason the cooking, the painting, and I still draw cartoons, and the writing still need to be done.”
When tragedy struck, in the shape of the major fire, Peter lost two exhibitions of paintings and four manuscripts. A terrible blow. He’s since rewritten them and continued to produce an amazing amount of work. Wondering through his studio, there is a sea of colour and eye-catching depictions of various themes. As Peter explains the idea is not to just have someone look at your work, but to have them question what you’re trying to convey as an artist. The trick is to keep ahead of the fashion so you aren’t painting what everyone else is. It’s a delicate operation.
“I like to create a story and then put that into colour, shape and form. Then try and design some food around it,” he laughs, ”and hope some silly bugger buys it.” I’m sure they will, Peter.  See ya later.